NARRAGANSETT—At the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library in Narragansett Wednesday evening Roberta Richman, a 33-year employee at Rhode Island’s Department of Corrections, spoke about the current climate and challenges facing the incarceration system, and why the state must look towards doing things differently.
“The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation on Earth, well over 2.2 million people at this moment,” said Richman. “We spend more money on incarceration, and we don’t have lower crime rates than other nations.”
“If your belief is putting people in prison deters crime, it is simply not true,” she added. “Prison is not there for that.”
Richman began her career as an educational instructor for the Department of Corrections (DOC) without any previous background in law enforcement or corrections and, in 1991, was named warden of the women’s Adult Corrections Intake center (ACI).
“I didn’t pick this career, but I needed a job,” said Richman. “My masters is in fine arts. I had no training or prior qualifications prior to accepting the jobs, they just asked me to do it and I learned how to do it.”
“I did educational services, which is basically like running a small school, [when] in 1991, I was asked by the director to become the warden of the women’s prison,” she continued. “I tell people that that is when I grew up and began to realize how little I knew about the ways of the world. I did that for 10 years, and those were the 10 hardest years of my life.”
Richman, who retired last year after working for Rehabilitative Services at the DOC, stated that the culture of incarceration in the United States and Rhode Island has far too great of an impact on the lives of prisoners, their families, and the public at large who pay for offenders to reside in prison.
“In Rhode Island, we put everybody in prison who commits a crime, [and] I believe that more harm than good comes from incarcerating most offenders,” said Richman. “From a humane perspective, and also a cost effective perspective, we lose when we incarcerate people who are not truly threats to the community.”
“There are thousands of inmates who I grew close to, and maybe seven to 10 percent of whom I truly thought needed to be in prison,” she added.
Richman relayed a gripping story about a 15-year-old girl that she became close to while working for the DOC. The teenager had killed her boyfriend’s new girlfriend, shooting her as she stepped out of his car.
“I felt as though I raised [her] myself, but when she first came, she was a murderer,” said Richman. “When she was 11, her mother’s boyfriend didn’t want her around the house, so her mother allowed her to go live with her 16-year-old boyfriend; she was 11. After a a couple of years, the boyfriend found a girl he liked better. So this young kid, at 13, standing on a corner with a bunch of friends, had a gun shoved into her hand and when a car pulled up and this boy and his new girlfriend showed up, she shot her and she died. [The teenager] got 45 years to serve at the age of 13.”
Richman stressed that there are many cases such as these among troubled youth, as well as adults, where incarceration alone denudes them of their ability to grow, to mature and understand the consequences of their mistakes, as well as learn to help others from their own difficult experiences.
“In the women’s center, most women are serving for non-violent crimes; for shoplifting, check fraud and a lot of drugs,” said Richman. “They are serving six months to a year. In six months, you don’t change a person’s life, and 65 percent of the population at the ACI are serving less than a year.”
In prison, an inmate is stripped of all their responsibilities, forced to do what he or she is told. Such a life, Richman stated, does great harm to society’s ability to rehabilitate and improve the lives of those incarcerated. Once released, prisoners are isolated from the world and often return to their troubled past.
“An independent adult who is incarcerated suddenly has to let go all their independent thinking,” said Richman. “They are told what to do every minute of every day, and if you don’t want to get into trouble, you follow orders. Then one day, we tell them to assume all the responsibilities of being an independent adult, get a job, don’t hang out with your old friends or go back to your old neighborhood. What are we asking?”
“It is very easy to listen to me and believe nobody should be in prison, [but] I don’t believe that,” she continued. “I think people should be sanctioned for the harm they have given, but of all the people we incarcerate, I would put 10 percent in that category. All those people who are getting out, then what? Now we’ve got a whole population of people who have been incarcerated, have felonies, and we are asking them to reenter the community and succeed?”
According to Richman, Rhode Island’s prisoner re-entry programs are not developed as those in other states, such as Massachusetts or Connecticut, a significant problem in terms of re-introducing former prisoners into the surrounding community.
“[DOC does] an assessment of prisoners’ needs upon entry to find out how long they will be with us and figure out what their resources will be when they get out,” she continued. “We create a plan of what they will do when they are with us, drug treatment, go to school, work, and the discharge plan is created to take them through their incarceration and into a transition period when they are just released, and in Rhode Island, that transition period, you are out on your own. Who will help you through that transition?”
“Would we say to our children, once done with high school, good luck?” she continued. “They need a transition into adult life, but we don’t have transitional opportunities here.”
Richman has advocated strongly over the years of utilizing the abilities of incarcerated persons to benefit local communities, namely with white-collar criminals whose professional backgrounds could be put to good use.
“What if we took all their assets back and gave it to those who live at Crossroads,” said Richman. “Why shouldn’t lawyers use their skills to work and pay us back, [those] who work hard and earn money, all of which we take for the rest of his [or her] life. That sounds like justice, and it doesn’t cost anything.”
One of the larger issues perpetuating the culture of incarceration in the United States is what Richman calls the ‘industrial complex,’ which draws businesses and politicians to profit heavily from keeping as many people as possible in prison.
“People are making a fortune building, operating, and maintaining prisons, [incarcerating] everyone from illegal immigrants to a person who wrote a bad check,” said Richman. “It is all being driven by money, and some of the big prison companies are on the stock market.”
“In the 1980s, tough on crime happened and the war on drugs happened,” she added. “If want to get elected to office, can you say anything nice about someone who broke the law? Not really.”
Ultimately, Richman believes that a more positive atmosphere which is responsive to individual needs should be maintained in the prison system, from dealing with inmates to properly training correctional officers to communicate effectively and look at prisoners as more than a number.
“I wrote an essay recently on forgiveness and what it means to forgive someone who has hurt you, and what kind of a person it takes to dig down and forgive,” said Richman. “When we are hurt we want satisfaction, we feel anger and fear and want revenge against that person.”
“I talk to people about forgiveness and humanity, and what you would be like if you grew up in poverty and violence, and had no role models,” she continued. “For some of these women and men, I may have been the first person to talk with them in a kind voice.”
The Maury Loontjens Memorial Library will hold the next lectures of its series ‘The Art of Imprisonment,’ on Oct. 23 and Oct. 30. For more information, visit www.narlib.org  or call 401-789-9507.